One of the occasional food deliveries we would get from time to time at home is from Chiko, a restaurant chain based in the DC metro area that skillfully blends the flavors of Chinese and Korean cuisine. The same team also opened another restaurant focused on Korean food near Dupont Circle a few years ago, and Anju had instantly become a hit I the DC dining scene. As a couple with Korean background, my wife Jun and I always get nervous whenever we visit Korean restaurants, especially those that attempt to give a modern spin to the country’s cuisine. Atomix in New York City is of course the highest ideal of a successful modern Korean dining experience, and we’ve had successful meals elsewhere, including the sadly shuttered Magpie and the Tiger in DC’s Petworth neighborhood we had visited last year. There are other places, however, that we had regretted coming; Korean food, while not as elaborate-looking as French or Japanese, is not that easy to execute at a high level, and some of the duds we had visited simply didn’t seem to understand the essence of the country’s rich culinary tradition. Unfortunately, based on our recent visit we had finally made after hesitating for some time, we felt that Anju fell on the latter category.
The menu at Anju consists mainly of beloved Korean classics that are ideal for sharing in a group setting. Our server highly recommended the yukhoe (Korean version of beef tartare), and we took on his offer. While the beef’s texture was not bad, the sauce loosely based on gochujang (red chili paste) was a bit too overpowering for us to savor that texture. Things went quickly downhill afterwards. Jun was excited to try the honey butter goguma (sweet potato), hoping for something akin to a popular snack called mattang (think candied sweet potato), but it didn’t meet her expectations. The fried chicken with spicy gochujang from Anju simply lacked the delightful crispy texture that makes this dish such a popular dish in the Korean dining culture. Another Korean classic, dolsot bibim bap (a mix of rice, vegetables and bulgogi in a hot stone bowl), was not terrible but there was nothing special about it; in fact, we were missing the crispy rice layer on the edge of the bowl from the sizzle. Even a relatively safe dish, such as a board of seared galbi accompanied by various vegetables to be used as wraps, was rather underwhelming; Jun couldn’t understand why the meat came overcooked to totally kill the texture.
I guess not everyone agrees with our experience at Anju. It is still quite a popular restaurant that requires reservations in advance on the weekends. The casual atmosphere of the restaurant would make it a good option for gatherings with friends and family if the food there agrees with your taste. There is full bar with selections of traditional Korean alcoholic drinks such as makgeolli (a type of rice wine); the only thing that we were fond of from the dinner at Anju was a cute kettle from which we poured the makgeolli. We really wished we would like Anju more; it was just another exhibit that not every popular Korean restaurant in the States is in fact a worthy dining destination.
KenScale: 6.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 6.5/10)
Address: 1805 18th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009
Reservation via Resy